Snapchat’s charm offensive on advertisers isn’t slowing down, but despite this the app has remained uncluttered by influencer endorsements. As its parent company hurls toward an IPO will the platform become more populated with internet superstars or remain true to its ethos of authenticity?
Influencers are used to getting special treatment from social networks, but if reports are to be believed then Snapchat isn’t playing ball.
Murmurs of discontent in the influencer ranks first surfaced last year when the app removed the autoplay feature on its Stories format. The move left some digital stars having to explain to brands why there had been a sharp decline in their viewership.
More recently several influencers and even some celebrities have said Snapchat doesn’t offer the same perks for them as other platforms. YouTube’s top-tier benefits for creators with over 100,000 subscribers include workshops on how to maximise their output and access to the platform’s production facilities and analytics, but some influencers claim they’ve never had any contact with Snapchat outside of setting up their profile.
Since 2015, Snapchat has offered an Official Stories verification process to celebrities and public figures. Custom emojis are displayed beside the usernames of high-profile individuals to indicate that their account is official. Everyone from Kim Kardashian (a peach) to Jeremy Corbyn (a Union Jack) makes use of the feature, but for social media influencers there is nothing to set them apart from the ordinary user.
Dom Smales chief executive and founder of internet talent agency Gleam, which counts influencer royalty like Zoella, Marcus Butler and Caspar Lee among its clients, says that in his experience Snapchat isn’t yet forging strong relationships with creators.
When asked whether Snap is helping influencers engage with its chiefly millennial 150 million-strong user base, Smales says: “Surprisingly; no, Snapchat isn’t working proactively with our talent to further consolidate a young social media savvy audience.
“We would love to co-create content with the platform. I think there is a huge amount of potential to be realised. Like most social media platforms that reach scale, Snapchat seems to be concentrating on existing traditional media owners and brands.”
Smales’ insight into Snapchat’s current hands-off approach to talent is an interesting one. The app prides itself its on rough and ready feel and quick-fire ephemeral nature - differentiators that offer a layer of authenticity in comparison to its at times overly-manicured competitors. Until now it has had fairly tight control over its advertising, only fully opening up its API to brands at the end of January, but figures suggest users are skipping ads.
A recent study from Fluent Research alleged that around 69% of those questioned skipped Snap ads 'always' or 'often'. The study didn’t specify what format of ads were being skipped, but the mobile-video ads that run between Stories on the platform are skippable with the swipe of thumb.
What's more, Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp have all unveiled near carbon copies of Snapchat's unique Stories service over the past six months, usurping the app's USP.
If this trend continues, Matt Thorne, creative director at Disrupt, believes Snapchat’s hand may be forced to follow the likes of YouTube and monetise its influencer community.
“The jury remains out on whether this could work in Snap’s favor or against,” he muses. “It is currently facing plateaued user adaption, and with Instagram and Facebook turning the screw on it, it will be looking to protect their relationship with the user - meaning only ads that really work in a native way or organic collaborations with influencers will keep users engaged. Too many ads will turn users off.”
Herein lies Snapchat’s problem. The company's IPO filing reveals on average it's making $1.05 off each user per-quarter, a far cry from Facebook’s figure of $4.83. Of course, Facebook has more users but in the short-term Snap can only promise investors growth, not revenue. If it wants to avoid the same mistakes Twitter has it will have to double down on advertising at speed, while also continuing to find ways to encourage people to use its service – a tricky set of demands to balance.
On the other hand, opening up further revenue streams via deeper relationships with the influencer community would see a slice of Snap’s immediate ad revenue taken away from the company and put into the pockets of internet stars.
Since overhauling its ad capabilities last year, Snap has regulated its ads so as to cause minimal disruption to the overall experience, and this quality control allows it to keep prices premium.
Disrupt’s Thorne believes that the reason for Snap seemingly playing hard to get with talent boils down to budgets: “The issue at hand is all the advertising dollars possibly going directly to the influencers and bypassing Snapchat’s API buys or brand direct deals,” he says.
YouTube and Facebook’s deals with influencers work because they split the ad revenue almost down the middle – giving the creator a 55% cut. Snap has yet to build out a similar deal, and another challenge facing it is its guarded approach to data; something which has been in the past an obstacle for advertisers.
Matt Donegan, managing director at Social Circle, which partners influencers with brands and agencies, says the limited analytics Snap offers to influencers mean his team are still exploring how vital the messaging app is to a campaign.
“The largest issue we have is that Snapchat doesn't have a public API that allows us access to a user’s audience data,” he continues, “what this means, is that we’re constantly depending on the influencers involved in the campaign to download their content and send it to us and screen grab the number of people who have viewed the content.”
The process is somewhat cumbersome when compared to the perks afforded to talent from Snapchat’s rivals. Part of Snapchat's reasoning for not building on this may well be down to the fact that it believes everyone is an influencer within its own community, and that the app's primary purpose is to facilitate personal between users.
Speaking at Ad Week Europe last year, Snap's vice-president of content Nick Bell pointed that the app was built upon the idea of mobility. “The word authenticity is overused,” he said. “We don’t surface vainity metrics because it’s not about trying to capture that perfect sunset to see how many likes you receive… It’s more about removing the pressure that social media has created.”
Despite some of the drawbacks of posting branded content to the platform many big-name influencers are already active within its walls including Zoella and Caspar Lee.
"Our roster is using Snapchat to add highly time relevant updates to the content they share with their audiences," says Gleam boss Smales.
"They are also using the creative Filters and Lenses to entertain the audience in a way that other platforms don’t allow in such an easy and intuitive way. The really forward thinking and innovative brands are open to using Snapchat with our talent and see it as another way to tangibly reach an otherwise illusive audience."
Snap gives young fans a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of their favourite YouTubers, and Donegan concedes that as time progresses it is indeed becoming a "vital part" of many campaigns.
"Snapchat works perfectly for a campaign that is capturing something live - for example an event or a challenge," he asserts, pointing to his agency's work with American influencer Andrea Russett who has one million followers and used the app at the "core of content," for a branded campaign last summer.
"Snapchat is a particularly expensive route to advertise, yet for a lot of brands the perfect target audience is sitting at the other end of the phone[...]we’ve always said, if a brand doesn't have its own large following on Snapchat, use someone’s who already does."
One thing that is certain is that Snap isn't going anywhere - and its forthcoming potential $22bn IPO, which is poised to be one of the largest in US tech history, coupled with the current buzz around influencers means the company is unlikely to completely close the door on potential future talent strategies anytime soon.